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Can LeBron and Curry hold on to play-in spots? The NBA races we’re watching down the stretch

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The NBA trade deadline has passed as teams head into the final stretch of the season.

The race for the top of the Western Conference is tight, as the Minnesota Timberwolves, LA Clippers, Oklahoma City Thunder and Denver Nuggets are separated by just half a game as they jostle for position.

In the Eastern Conference, the NBA-best Boston Celtics have separated themselves from the rest of the contenders. Which team can fight for the No. 2 spot to position itself best for the postseason?

Will the New York Knicks knock through opponents in the East? Can the Los Angeles Lakers or Golden State Warriors salvage their seasons in the West? And can the Miami Heat make another surprising run?

To get ready for the 2023-24 regular season’s final two months, our NBA insiders break down the most important races to watch in each conference.

The race for No. 1 in the West, where the champs are lurking

If anyone is going to knock the defending champs off their throne in the West, home-court advantage will be vital.

The Nuggets are 21-4 at home this season — and went 12-1 inside Ball Arena last postseason on their way to their first championship. They are almost unbeatable in Denver when it matters most. Add the altitude advantage, and Denver could be unstoppable in the playoffs.

Can the Timberwolves and Thunder win the West and perhaps force Denver to have to win on the road in the playoffs? Anthony Edwards is one of the league’s next brightest stars, and team president Tim Connelly’s gamble on pairing Karl-Anthony Towns and Rudy Gobert is paying off. The acquisition of Monte Morris stabilizes the Wolves’ bench play that much more.

OKC is ready to show that the future is here. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is trying to finish an MVP-worthy campaign strong, and Chet Holmgren could be Rookie of the Year. The Thunder’s addition of Gordon Hayward, if he’s healthy, could win them the conference’s top seed.

Where the Nuggets might lack depth, they make up for it with two-time MVP Nikola Jokic and championship experience. They also still have arguably the best starting five in the league. Coach Michael Malone just has to find more consistency from his second unit and keep his starters healthy.

The Clippers perhaps have never been better equipped to win a championship. The healthy duo of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George has been bolstered by former league MVPs James Harden and Russell Westbrook. The Clippers entered this season vowing to take the regular season more seriously, and their rise to the top of the West has been stunning following a 3-7 start. The change? They don’t rest players or take nights off anymore.

“It means the approach for this season paid off,” George said Saturday about what it means for the Clippers to be first in the West. “We haven’t [always done that] in years past, but more so knowing what’s at stake and the importance of the regular season.

“We just have the roster, we have the personnel, and now we’re just putting it all together and we’ve been healthy.”

As of Saturday, all four teams are separated by a single game in the standings. The West’s top seed could be decided by the fact that Denver faces Minnesota three times in the final month of the season, twice at home. Their meeting at Denver on April 10 could be season shifting. The Wolves also play the Clippers three more times, starting Monday.

— Ohm Youngmisuk


The race to avoid the West play-in

The next four teams battling for positioning in the Western Conference are doing so to get a break — not to fight for their potential playoff lives.

In the play-in tournament’s history, the seventh seed has never missed the playoffs. Although last season the Heat entered as the No. 7 seed, lost the first play-in game to the Atlanta Hawks, before winning to enter as the eighth seed… and eventually going to the NBA Finals.

But the No. 8 seed has been split — three times No. 8 has made the playoffs, and three times that team has failed to make it at all (Golden State Warriors in 2021, Cleveland Cavaliers and the Clippers in 2022).

Winning the fifth and sixth seed also has another built-in benefit of a week of rest and after an 82-game season, having five or six days off between games is certainly a plus.

Of the group, the Dallas Mavericks made the most significant push during the trade deadline acquiring P.J. Washington and Daniel Gafford — who combined for 33 points and 14 rebounds in their Dallas’ debut in a 146-111 win over the Thunder on Saturday — while sending out Grant Williams, Seth Curry and Richaun Holmes.

The Phoenix Suns traded for Royce O’Neale and David Roddy in a three-team deal with the Brooklyn Nets and the Memphis Grizzlies. The New Orleans Pelicans stood pat while the only deal the Sacramento Kings made was to trade for Robin Lopez, who was immediately waived for cash.

The Pelicans and Suns play twice in the season’s final two weeks — in New Orleans on April 1 and in Phoenix on April 7. New Orleans will then take on the Kings on April 11 in Sacramento.

Dallas has to travel to Sacramento for a rare back-to-back with two off days in between in the same city on March 26 and 29. The game against New Orleans is the only time the Suns play any of the other three teams in March or April.

With the Western standings so close, the tiebreakers between the teams will become important — making the final regular-season head-to-head matchups all the more important.

— Andrew Lopez


The star-studded fight — just to reach the postseason

At the time of last season’s trade deadline, the Lakers had lost four out of six games. About seven hours after the deadline, with several of their new acquisitions on the sideline in street clothes, they lost again, to fall to 25-31 — 13th in the Western Conference.

The flurry of trades the Lakers orchestrated fueled an 18-8 run to close the regular season to reach the No. 7 spot in the play-in tournament, where they beat the No. 8 Timberwolves to earn the seventh seed in the first round. The turnaround continued with a berth in the conference finals.

While this year the team has failed to capture the momentum of that playoff run yet, the circumstances were less dire when time ran out on trade season. L.A. had won five out of seven heading into the deadline. Even with a loss to the Nuggets to cap the deadline day, the Lakers’ record was 27-26 — ninth in the West.

“We really like the players on our team and we’re confident in this group of players,” Lakers vice president of basketball operations and general manager Rob Pelinka said Thursday after L.A. didn’t complete any deals.

To follow up last year’s playoff run with another play-in appearance would be disappointing in a sense, but not nearly as devastating as finishing 11th and out of the picture completely.

Perhaps it’s foolish to assume they can replicate their performance last spring all over again, but it’s not just the Lakers themselves believing they can do it. “I don’t want any piece of them in the playoffs,” a Western Conference executive told ESPN this week.

Which is similar to the fear that the Warriors still instill in their opponents because of their dynastic history. This season has been tough sledding for them, but would anyone volunteer to play Steph Curry for a series, no matter who is surrounding him?

While we’re talking about four teams going for two spots, the Houston Rockets and Utah Jazz don’t have nearly the same worries as the Lakers and Warriors. Sure, there would be a bit of a sting for Utah after having such a promising stretch — going 12-2 from mid-December to mid-January — only to fade in the end. And of course, coach Ime Udoka would obviously prefer to follow up a Finals appearance in his last season in Boston with at least a play-in spot in his first season in Houston.

The Lakers? They’re playing with the additional weight of delivering a good enough showing to make LeBron James want to stay in L.A. to close out his career.

The Warriors? They’re playing with the burden to show that the curtain hasn’t come down on their show just yet and the core of one of the NBA’s greatest teams — Curry, Draymond Green and Klay Thomspon — still shouldn’t be messed with.

L.A. and Golden State have played only once so far this season and it was an instant classic, with James’ team edging out Curry’s, 145-144, in double overtime.

With three more games on the schedule between them — Feb. 22, March 16 and April 9 — their matchups figure to only grow in intensity as they jostle with one another for play-in spots.

— Dave McMenamin


The race for East No. 2, where the Cavs have taken charge

The Celtics have the best record in the NBA and sit comfortably (five games entering Monday) at the top of the Eastern Conference. But whichever team finishes behind them with the No. 2 seed could pose the best challenge to Boston come playoff time.

Currently, that spot belongs to the Cavs, winners of nine in a row and 17 of their past 18 games and arguably the hottest team in the league. Cleveland is still searching for its first playoff series win without LeBron since 1993, but with a defense that ranks second and Donovan Mitchell playing even better than last season, the Cavs have the makeup of a contender in the East.

At the start of the season, the Milwaukee Bucks were considered on the same tier as Boston. Yet, things have not gone smoothly in the first year of the Giannis AntetokounmpoDamian Lillard pairing and the Bucks replaced their first-year coach Adrian Griffin with Doc Rivers, who has started 2-5 since taking the job.

After the trade deadline, the Knicks garnered the most leaguewide praise for a strong deadline of savvy moves. They’ve set themselves up for a deep playoff run behind Jalen Brunson, who made his first All-Star team and whose ascension has changed the trajectory of this franchise.

Claiming the No. 2 seed in the East has its share of advantages: a favorable first-round matchup against what looks like a potentially weak play-in field (not including lurking Miami), home court until at least the conference finals and avoiding an early matchup with Boston.

— Jamal Collier


The race for East Nos. 5-6, starring the conference’s biggest wild card

When the season began, the storyline surrounding the Eastern Conference was its depth. Instead, it’s been about star injuries as teams embark on the final two months of the regular season.

That’s certainly the case for the group of teams battling for the Nos. 5-8 spots in the East, a quartet led by the Philadelphia 76ers.

There is no bigger question across the NBA over the rest of the regular season than if the league’s reigning MVP, Joel Embiid, will be able to return to the floor for Philadelphia this season. If he can, the 76ers have a chance to contend for a title. If he can’t, it’s uncertain if they’ll even make the playoffs.

The other team lurking in this range is the defending East champion Miami Heat,who, like last year, are currently sitting in a play-in spot. The chances of replicating a Finals run from there are slim, so the goal will be to push up into the top six.

However, Miami has dealt with injuries all season, including a shoulder injury to Josh Richardson on Sunday that had him in a sling postgame and what looked like a potentially serious knee injury to recently acquired Terry Rozier.

And then there are the young upstart teams in this mix: the Indiana Pacers and Orlando Magic. Both have been out of the playoff mix recently, both are powered by young All-Stars in Tyrese Haliburton and Paolo Banchero and both would love to get into the top 6 in the East and avoid the play-in.

Making the playoffs for either of those teams will make this season a successful one. And with the injuries in Philly and Miami, getting into the top 6 is within the realm of possibility.

— Tim Bontemps


The race for the bottom of the East bracket

Even after watching the Heat beat the odds to reach the 2023 NBA Finals from a play-in spot, this season’s race for the bottom of the East’s play-in bracket isn’t the most compelling battle we’ve seen.

The Chicago Bulls, Hawks, Nets and Raptors were among the biggest “will they or won’t they?” teams at the trade deadline. All four have losing records and negative net ratings, meaning they could’ve opted to unload talent and collect draft picks.

The Raptors, currently in 12th, had already turned the page by dealing OG Anunoby (to New York) and Pascal Siakam (to Indiana) to build around All-Star Scottie Barnes. The free-falling Nets, in 11th, have dropped 16 of their last 21 games. Chicago and Atlanta, in ninth and 10th, respectively, stood pat at the deadline, even though they’ve repeatedly landed in the middle of the pack — with no true threat of contention — the past few years.

Because the Bulls and Hawks currently hold the final two play-in spots, and both kept their rosters precisely the same, they might be the safest picks to finish there, too. Chicago and Atlanta do have the toughest remaining schedules of these four teams.

The NBA’s middle is an unenviable place to be, but on some level, with Chicago and Atlanta having plenty of experience operating from this very spot, it almost seems comfortable.

— Chris Herring

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